I suppose I have to preface this by asking how do you know if a lesson worked? Well, on my list would be: Did the class work hard? Were the aims achieved? Did they get input and practice at the right level? Did they enjoy the class (not, by the way, did they have fun, but did they find the work stimulating and challenging enough?).
So what factors do we keep in mind when planning for these outcomes? Here are some which occur to me:
1. Have I pitched it right?
Will this lesson hit the sweet spot in terms of level of challenge? To get this right you need to know the class well and have that key sense of “cognitive empathy”. This is what I wrote about this in a previous blog:
“...the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. In teaching we can say that it refers to the teacher’s ability to marry every level of their teaching (e.g. planning lessons, classroom delivery, feedback provision, target-setting, homework) to their students’ thinking processes. We could break it down as follows:
An awareness of the cognitive challenges posed by language learning in general and by the specific language items you’re teaching. For example, knowing that the learning of adjective agreement is tough for English-speaking students because the concept doesn’t exist in English; or anticipating that direct and indirect object pronouns in French will be especially hard because of the word order problems they create; or being aware of the challenges posed by the German case system.
An understanding of how students respond to such challenges.
This involves an awareness of how cognition in a language learning context is affected by individual variables, e.g. age group, gender, personality type, culture, etc. For example, younger students usually find it harder than older ones to apply grammatical rules taught explicitly. Some topics appeal to some groups more than others, depending on the make-up and background of the class.”
So that sounded a touch academic, but you’ll probably agree all those factors play a role in how well you pitch the lesson.
2. Sensing the mood of the class.
This is more about “affective empathy”. What have you done in recent lessons and how did it go down? How did they react to certain types of approach: pair work, group work, games, teacher-led tasks, grammatical explanations, vocab tests etc? Do you need to add more variety? Does the class need livening up or calming? Can they concentrate for a certain length of time? What did they say they enjoyed?
3. Did it work before?
I think this is really important. If a lesson went well previously there is no guarantee it will again, but the odds are much higher it will. So why not reuse or refine lesson types or sequences you have used before with that class. We know students are comfortable with routines and know how you work after a while. Take advantage of this by deploying a familiar repertoire of techniques, e.g. questioning, drill types, “turn and talk” style pair work, picture sequences, flashcard use and so on.
4. Seek advice from other colleagues.
If you are quite new to language teaching you will inevitably get planning from on occasion, so if in doubt check with experienced colleagues who will give you their best advice. If this is not possible, for instance if you are in a one person department or communication is poor, then it’s easy to get quick advice from social networks, especially the Facebook professional groups.
5. Adapt to the moment.
Let’s say you’ve planned a lesson, but when the class arrives you have second thoughts about it. Maybe the mood of the class is wrong; maybe you just feel like doing something different on the spur of the moment. That happened to me quite a lot, and it’s fair to say that gets easier when you have a repertoire of fall-back lessons up your sleeve. Teachers will sometimes tell you their best lessons were those where they decided to improvise and change plan. In this case it’s as much about your mood as the class’s. Perhaps you’d planned for a fairly “passive” lesson with pupils listening, reading or writing, but you just feel like getting stuck in with some interaction. That spontaneous decision may work well since you approach the lesson with added gusto.
So deciding what will work can feel instinctive,but underlying this instinct are all sorts of factors. Who ever said teaching was a science?
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